GOD’S GIFTS TO THE CHURCH

            I can, if I work hard, envision the perfect church where everyone works together and loves each other as we are called to, enables each other to grow in faith, supports each other in the ministry of the church, seeks to bring out the best in each of its members, and never ever has a problem.  I can envision it–but I also realize that if such a church existed, its wonder would be destroyed the moment the very first real human being joined.  The theory of the church disappears quickly once people come on the scene.

And that is why, I believe, that God has provided the spiritual gifts to the church.  He has provided the church with the skills and abilities that we need to help the church be what he designed it to be.  As Paul describes it in I Corinthians 12.4-7:

There are different kinds of gifts, but the same Spirit. There are different kinds of service, but the same Lord. There are different kinds of working, but the same God works all of them in all men. Now to each one the manifestation of the Spirit is given for the common good. NIV

Paul obviously feels that the idea of the gifts is very important because he talks about them in I Corinthians 12, Romans 12 and Ephesians 4.  The various passages mention a lot of gifts and while some treat the lists as together providing the complete list of spiritual gifts, I am not sure of that–these lists may only be examples and the available gifts might be more than these lists suggest.

However, working with the lists we have provides us with some pretty impressive gifts–and among them is the gift of leadership, mentioned in Romans 12.8.  The church, as a group of people, will both want and need leadership and so God provides for that need and want by giving some people the gift of leadership.

Now, this is where I have a problem, a problem that I have had for a lot of years.  The gift of leadership seems to have become the be-all and end-all of ministry gifts in our culture.  There are more books, articles, seminars and websites on leadership that almost anything else.  And it seems like our culture wants us to assume that the gift of leadership is automatically granted to the pastor of the church, which has some serious problems and repercussions.

I remember a broken pastor sitting on my office one time as I tried to help him put his life back together a bit.  He slumped in the visitor chair, hung his head and mumbled, “I wanted to lead and they wouldn’t let me lead.”  At that point, I was operating on two different tracks.  I let him talk and helped him work out some of his feelings.

But I was also thinking about his context.  He wanted to lead the church–but I knew that congregation and knew that they already had some very gifted and capable leaders and really didn’t need another one.  They did need someone to provide pastoral care and appropriate teaching but really didn’t need another leader, especially a leader who primary gift wasn’t leadership but pastoral care.

I am a pastor and a teacher but I am not a particularly gifted leader.  As a pastor, I do at times have to provide leadership but most congregations I have served has had better leaders than me, leaders who know God’s direction for the church and whose gifts are recognized by the congregation.  I don’t need to compete with them for their job–things work best for the church when I follow my gifts and they follow theirs.

The church, any church, needs leaders.  But it also needs pastors, teachers, administrators, musicians, accountants and so on.  God, in his wisdom and grace, has provided the gifts that the church needs and the wise congregation carefully and prayerfully seeks the leading of the Spirit to get the right person with the right gift in the right place at the right time.  And that is a formula for church health whether the church is three believing  friends meeting at a coffee shop now and then or a huge mega church with a staff larger that my combined congregations.

Anytime the church or part of the church begins to make one gift more important or desired than the others, there is bound to be trouble.  When all the gifts are in balance, the church works well.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE THE BOSS?

I have been writing about the church for a few days now–I have a lot of concern for the church and its state.  I am not worried that the church will collapse or disappear.  Certainly, some gatherings of believers will collapse and some will disappear, often leaving behind a building that no quite knows what to do about and a collection on positive and negative stories circulating around the community.

My concern deals more with the practical reality of how believers need a gathering of other believers where they can learn about their faith as God intended.  When the church fulfills that role, it is doing and being what it is meant to do and be.  But one of the problems that the church runs into grows out of human psychology and sociology.  Except for a few people whose introversion far surpasses mine, most of us end up as part of many different groups of people which all have different purposes.

And no matter what the group exists for, no matter what it intends to do, no matter how it defines itself, there is one basic question that everyone wants answered whether they ask it aloud or now.  When I am part of a group, I want to know who is in charge–who is the boss?  Personally, I generally also want to know why that person or people are in charge but I am pretty sure that is more one of my own internal issues than a generalized human need.

So, the church is a gathering of people who share a common faith and who come together as God planned to help each other understand, develop and practice the faith they have in God through Jesus Christ.  And, if you have been reading the past few posts to this blog, you realize that while we may call the gathering “my” church or “our” church, the church really belongs to God, who founded it through Jesus Christ, which makes God the boss.

Theologically, that is correct–practically, it doesn’t work that way.  It might be God’s church and we might be God’s people and we might be committed to finding and doing God’s will but in the end, someone or some group in the church is going to end up providing leadership for the church.  We can hope and pray that that person or persons will be conscious of the fact that they are representing God–but we can’t always be sure of that.  The history of the Faith is pretty clear on the fact that many people who claim to be leading the church on God’s behalf are pretty much doing their own thing.

We can’t really try to structure the group so there are no leaders or bosses.  That has been tried in a variety of places by a variety of groups, both faith-based and secular with less than spectacular results.  Inevitably, a group without leadership ends up being a group where every member feels he or she is a leader and the resulting group dynamics end up destroying the group’s effectiveness or destroying the group itself.

Churches I have worked with and heard of generally have one of two problems when it comes to leadership–they have too many leaders or now enough leaders. Either situation creates a church that is ineffective at helping its members grow and develop and practise their faith.  One common variation of this problem that has become very prominent in the last few years is that many pastors feel that they are supposed to be the leader of the group.

A basic question that needs to be asked is why we need a leader at all?  I mean, we are believers, we have committed ourselves to God through Jesus, we are guided by the presence of the Holy Spirit so why do we need a leader?  I think there are a couple of reasons.

First, there is the practical human reality–when the group gets larger than one, at least one in the group is going to want direction and at least one other is going to want to provide that direction.  The bigger the group, the more who want direction and the more who want to provide direction.

The second reason is more pertinent to the church.  In planning for the church and its work, God provided a variety of resources, one of which is people who can lead.  These resources are generally called the gifts of the Spirit and we will look at them in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHOSE CHURCH IS IT?

I am the second oldest of nine children, which meant that our house was normally busy and noisy, which more than enough noise created by squabbles among us kids.  Very early on, my parents taught us the old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones but names never hurt”.  Supposedly, that would teach us to ignore the inevitable name-calling and therefore avoid a lot of the reason for sibling squabbles.

It didn’t work, because as any reasonable adult knows, names do hurt–and the truth is that names can hurt as much as or more than  a physical blow.  That is because words count–they carry great weight and so the words we use and how we use them have a major effect on life.  As I have written before, whether it is “my” church or “our” church makes a real difference in the way I relate to the church and what I expect from the church.

So, what words can we use that help us understand the reality of the church?  How can we refer to the church and our relationship to it in a way that allows us to be reminded of the fact that the church is a gathering of people who share faith in God, a commitment to each other and a commitment to service?  It would also be nice is using it didn’t take five minutes to get out.

Keep in mind that we are always going to end up saying “my” and “our” at some point.  But we do need some way of describing church that helps us remember just who and what we are.  For me, that means I need to make frequent references to the founder, sustainer and owner of the church.  The church was founded by God through Jesus Christ.  The church was part of God’s plan for humanity from the beginning.

Through the presence of the Holy Spirit, God both guides and empowers the church.  He calls us to various ministries, grants us the gifts and abilities we need to carry out that ministry, and works in and through us as we carry out that ministry.  In the end, it is his church, the gathering of his people who come together to help each other grow together towards him and do his will.  It is God’s church–not mine, not ours.

God’s church takes a variety of forms, meets in a variety of places, is comprised of a variety of people, engages in a variety of ministries, worships in a wide variety of ways–but in the end, it is God’s church and he is seeking to work in and through it to accomplish his ends.

That is not just good theology–but it is also good linguistics.  Many of the problems that I have seen in the church in all its incarnations come about because someone or some group has chosen to forget that it is God’s church and sought to direct the gathering in their own ways for their own ends.

If it is God’s church, we are seeking to follow God and his leading.  And since there is none of us who is in perfect harmony with God, we all need the rest of the church to ensure that we get it right.  If it is God’s church, we all seek to discover how our gifts and talents and abilities work together to achieve God’s ends for the church.  If it is God’s church, our task is not to get our way but to discover and do God’s will.

On a practical level, it isn’t always convenient to refer to the churches I am part of as God’s church.  It can become cumbersome to have to say something like “I am part of God’s church which meets in the Baptist meeting house in Port Lorne”–so I end up saying “our” church a lot and “my” church occasionally.  But mentally, I work at thinking “God’s” church and speak it as often as I can without forcing the language or sounding like too much of a religious fanatic.

Experiencing the wonder of being a part of God’s church is much more gratifying and uplifting than being part of a group that exists to do my will.

May the peace of God be with you.

OUR CHURCH

            I have been involved in pastoral ministry for a long time and among other things, that means I end up attending a lot of meetings with other pastors.  No matter what the reason for the meeting, we always end up comparing notes about our settings–if that isn’t the focus of the meeting, there are always breaks and mealtimes and before and after.  I have found that often, these times of sharing and comparing and discussing can be powerful and valuable helps for all involved as we seek to help each other do the task we have been called to in a better way.

But over the years, I have noticed an interesting process.  Some of the people who are there who have recently begun a new pastorate spend a lot of time talking about “my church”, “my vision for my church”, “my plans for my church”.  Before too long, some of those pastors are talking at the meeting about “them”–as in the church isn’t responsive to their vision, their church is frustrating their plans, their church is a toxic church.  Before too many more meetings, these people have moved on and are then talking about “my new church”.

I have also noticed that people who talk about “our church” tend not to follow that pattern.  In fact, after I made the connection years ago, I began talking and thinking about the church as “our church” and “us”.  I would tell people that “we” are doing this and so on.  I think this kind of language is a major step up from the “my church” approach both for pastors and laity.

It makes explicit the more important theological reality that the church is a gathering of people drawn together by their common faith, common need to help each other grow in faith and common need to help each other discern and do God’s will.  Talking and thinking “our church” enables us to look beyond personal agendas and see the need to work with the whole group.  It reminds us that we are called to work together, making use of all the gifts, talents, resources, ideas and insights that God has provided the gathering.

Using the words “our”, “ours” and “we” helps us avoid the thinking that our personal agendas are the most important think in the church.  If it is “my” church, then “my” agenda is obviously the most important agenda and anyone who can’t see that is a problem to be overcome.  But if it “our” church, then my personal agenda is only one of the agendas that the group needs to look at and consider as we together help each other discover what is best for all of us together.  When it is “our” church, disagreement over agendas is a natural part of the process of people who share a common faith working out their faith in community.

For me, talking and thinking about “our” church is much better that “my” church.  And I have tried to use that language consistently in my references to the churches I am part of.  But even that language has a drawback.

The drawback comes when there are several “ours” in the gathering.  And unfortunately, any group of people that has more than one member has a tendency to create sub-groups.  Even small congregations soon discover that they have some important and hard to reconcile differences.  One group thinks music should be provided by an organ while another thinks that drums and guitars is better.  Of course, there is also that small but financially powerful group that believes we would be better off with no musical instruments like our founders 200 years ago.

Which of these groups is the “our” in “our church”?  Unfortunately, each will likely claim the right to be the “our” which sets the direction of the church.  So, instead of having one individual thinking that the whole church should do things “my” way, we end up with various competing images of “our” church, with each competing group believing that they represent the reality of the church.

So talking about “our” church is miles ahead of taking about “my” church, there are still some issues and difficulties with that language.  If these are the only two choices, I will always go with “our”–but I think there is better language that I can use when referring to the church I am part of.  That is where we will go in the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

MY CHURCH

I haven’t figured out if I love words because I am a writer or if I am a writer because I love words but I have always been fascinated by words and their meanings and how they affect us.  Our words both reveal and shape our reality.  The words we use to talk about something are therefore much more important than we realize.

Look at how we talk about the church, for example.  Probably the most common way of describing the gathering of believers that we are a part of is to say, “my church”.  This can be a very simple statement used to describe our relationship to that group of people–we belong so we can say “my”.  But the more we look at it, the more convoluted that description becomes.  The problems come because the word “my” can indicate belonging but more often it indicates possession–and at some level, when we say “my church”, we are planting seeds in our minds that suggest that the church belongs to us and exists to benefit us.

And lest you think these are a sign of how desperate I am to have something to write about at times, think for a bit.  A lot of the time, we do treat the church as if it exists for us personally.  We want services when it is convenient for us.  We want the music that we want.  We want the sermon to be the length that we want and about the topic that we want.  And even if I are the only person in the congregation who wants a 3 minute sermon on Jezebel accompanied by 439 repetitions of the chorus of “Just as I am”, I want it so it should happen–because in the end, it is my church.

Many years ago, I remember a class discussion about making decisions in the church–I think I was a student for this discussion so that was a long time ago.  The gist of the discussion was whether the church should decide things by a simple majority or if we should use a higher number, like two thirds or something.  The professor suggested that if we were serious about our faith, we should use consensus–nothing should happen until everyone was in agreement.

At the time, I really liked that idea and have consistently tried to use that in the church business.  But there is a problem–using consensus means that in the end, one person can decide the business of the church.  And there is often one person who is quite willing to decide how the church will be, simply because they believe “This is my church”.

Having one person in the congregation who see the church as “mine” is a problem, but one that can generally be worked around.  Unfortunately, it is very rare for there to be only one person who uses the first person possessive when talking about the church.  At worst, every person who is part of congregation is using “my” when they talk about the church.

And the use of “my” and its related words means that all of us think we have the right to determine the direction and shape of the church.  I don’t like modern choruses and so my church shouldn’t use them.  I like topical sermons and so my church should use them.  I don’t like noisy kids in worship and so my church should deal with that.  I don’t like the minister and so my church should get a different one.  This is my vision and my church should adopt it.

The list goes on and on–and far from being a theoretical, this is a possibility type list, this is a real list of real issues that have caused real messes in real congregations.  Whether we want to admit it or not, the underlying problem comes about because I and many others describe the church in the same way I describe my car, my keys, my favourite shirt–I say “my” and “mine”, which at some level that I may not even fully recognize, allows me to assume possession of the church–if it is mine, it should do and be what I want.

Underneath many church messes is the underlying assumption that it is my church.  Maybe we need a better way of referring to the church that we are a part of–and that will be the subject of the next post.

May the peace of God be with you.

THE UGLY CHURCH

My last few posts have been looking at the importance of the church.  I have tried to make clear the reality that the New Testament assumes–believers need a gathering of other believers to experience the fullness of their faith and to grow in the way they are meant to grow.  I have no particular structure or format in mind when I say this–the church exists in many forms today, from highly structured and organized denominational gatherings to informal, shifting collections of people who would be very reluctant to call themselves a church.  As long as believers are coming together to enable each other to grow in faith, discover more about themselves and God and discover how best to do God’s will, they are a church.

It is easy to see from what I have written that I am a strong believer in the church and its importance to believers and in God’s scheme of things.  But at the same time as I champion the church, I am also deeply aware of the damage the church has done to individual believers, groups of believers and the Christian faith as a whole.  I am deeply aware of the number of people who are deeply committed to God through Jesus but who have experienced such hurt and pain in the church that they not only have refused to ever be part of a group even vaguely resembling the church but also have begun to doubt the value of the Faith itself.

As a pastor, I have been involved in the cleanup that follows a messy and painful fight in the church.  I have seen the long term effects that come from churches that degenerate into fight clubs and worse.  Some people abandon that group and become spiritual refugees, wandering from congregation to congregation, looking for someplace to call home.  Others simply stop–they join the uncounted crowd of former church-goers whose past allegiance to a congregation only comes out when their funeral is planned.  A few always stay put but their fears and suspicions create a congregation marked by division and separation, not unity.

The mission of the church is effectively destroyed in the community of the fighting church–and not just the mission of the fighting church.  All the congregations in the area are lumped in together as hypocritical fakers whose message means nothing.  People on the verge of making a commitment to the Faith draw back, losing their interest in spiritual matters.  Those who haven’t been part of the faith use the mess as one more reason to avoid the whole thing.

I have seen all that.  I have listened to the stories, provided kleenex for the tears, ministered to the refugees, absorbed the community disillusionment and anger–and even more, I have been on the receiving end of the messiness more than I want to admit.  And to be painfully honest, I have been the cause of some of the problems as well.

But I simply can’t write the church off–and not just because my income and pension are dependent on the church.  In the end, I can’t write the church off because I have come to realize that I–along with every other Christian of all time–am dependant on the church.  For all its problems and difficulties and failures, the church is still God’s plan for his people, it is still the gathering that God intended and intends to use to accomplish his purposes for us individually and as a body.  The church is still the intended bride of Christ.

And so I am committed to the church–but mine isn’t a blind and naive commitment that pretends everything is wonderful and tries to hide the wrong and painful under spiritual rugs and in locked cabinets.  Far from it–I have chosen not only to recognize the ugly side of the church but also to challenge and change it.  I have some advantages in this process–I have been called by God to pastoral ministry, I have significant training in a variety of ministry related areas and most of all, God has given me the patience that seems to be a basic requirement for helping the church acknowledge and deal with its ugliness and the consequences of that ugliness.

But creating a positive and powerful church is not the job of just one person–all of us have a part in creating whatever ugliness or goodness that the church ultimately produces.  And so for the next few posts, we will look at how we can help produce a good church.

May the peace of God be with you.

ME AND GOD

The last few posts have focused on the church, looking at what it is and can be and perhaps should be.  But as I was writing the posts, I was very aware of the fact that there are a great many believers for whom the church, any church, simply isn’t a part of their spiritual life.  For a variety of reasons, many people prefer to make their spiritual journey alone.

Now, there are some who make say they are making the journey by themselves but the truth is that they do have a church in their lives–it just doesn’t look or sound like a church.  They don’t have a building, they don’t have worship services, they don’t have a pastor and they don’t have a name.  But when people who follow Jesus get together, they actually form the basis of a church–and if as a part of getting together, they influence each others’ spiritual development, they are a church.  A group of people who meet for coffee on a semi-regular basis can be a church for someone who doesn’t actually realize they are part of a church.  My guess is that a great many believers who have problems with church are still part of a church–they just don’t recognize it as a church.

I say that because our Christian faith is rooted in community.  The New Testament, which provides us with our understanding of the faith we have accepted envisions believers as being in community.  Becoming a follower of Jesus involves accepting God’s grace in Jesus Christ–and then becoming involved in a community of people who have made the same commitment.  There isn’t any place in the NT I can think of that envisions a solitary Christian living their faith life alone and unattached from a community of some sort.

Rather, the New Testament sees the Christian faith as being lived in the messiness of community.  Each part of the community affects and is affected by the community.  Those effects can be and will be both positive and negative, which is what makes Christian community so messy and unpredictable.  It is also why many people would prefer to live their faith outside of community.

And there is some validity to thinking that way.  The initial commitment to faith is an individual act–we each need to make up our own mind of following Jesus.  We are influenced by a variety of people put in place through the activity of the Holy Spirit but we do have to make our own personal decision.

And there will be times in our spiritual development when we need to take time to ourselves.  These times can range from a few minutes for prayer to a few days of spiritual retreat to three years in Arabia (Galatians 1.17-18).  But our faith is not meant to be lived totally apart from community.  Trying to live our faith outside of community sets serious and significant limits on our spiritual growth.

Living outside Christian community might protect us from the pain and struggle that Christian community almost inevitably produces but it also keeps us from experiencing the fullness of what God offers to us through our faith.

Many of the blessings and benefits of faith can only be discovered in the context of a Christian community.  Even the strength and validity of our faith can’t be discovered outside of the context of community.  In I John 4.20-21, we read,:

If anyone says, “I love God,” yet hates his brother, he is a liar. For anyone who does not love his brother, whom he has seen, cannot love God, whom he has not seen. And he has given us this command: Whoever loves God must also love his brother. NIV

Unless we are in a context where we have significant contact with fellow believers, we simply can’t know how serious we are about loving God.  God exists on a different level of reality and we don’t bump into him at meetings and over coffee in the same way we meet fellow believers.  And so while we can say how much we love God, it is only as we live in the reality of a Christian community that we can really know how much we love God.

“Me and God” sounds like a wonderful way to live our faith–but the God we follow wants us to live our relationship with him in the context of a community of other believers, all of whom are as imperfect as we are.  Together, we help each other become what God is calling and helping us become.

May the peace of God be with you.